Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My experience with the French school system (a bit of history)

School. A subject all of its own. At the bright age of three, Leo was potty-trained, propre as they say here, and ready for the first year of kindergarten, or the petite classe of the Maternelle. And off he went. I was all set to have my children in one of the world’s best public education systems and happily entrusted him to the school.

But little by little, things just went off. I read the teacher's notes on his drawings “n’a pas suivi les consignes” – didn’t follow the directions. Hm? Complicated directions for a three year old? Or, scribbles on a page that was supposed to be chestnuts colored in. Or many many tasks of taking stickers of round colors and placing them on a line.

Then there was the day the teacher was mad because Leo, dressed in blue, chose to sit at the blue table, even though he was apparently a yellow. Leo and his closest friends were perpetually kept separate from each other (especially after the incident when they flooded the bathroom…) As the year went on, Leo began stuttering.

The teachers decided it was my fault for speaking English with him, and for hiring American au pairs. “Madame vous faites une erreur”. When I brought Leo to the US during school time to see my family, forcing him to skip a week’s school, the teacher complained, stating, “il faut qu’il puisse se plier au système”. He needs to fold himself to the system, i.e. fit into the box, adapt. I wasn’t sure I was in full agreement with these ideas. And, to my mind, Leo's stuttering wasn’t so much a problem of language as of the stressful environment he was not adapting to.

So, after receiving the school work of the year, reviewing the many negative statements of the teacher in some amazement, I started wondering what could I do? For someone who did well in school and who comes from a scholarly family it was truly frightening to contemplate a child who already hated school and resisted going at the tender age of four. Imagine what that would lead to for adolescence? When school is actually hard!

Where might I enroll my child? Were there other choices? Perhaps a Montessori? None in the area, or an alternative school? The town boasted a Catholic school, and many parents who wished their children pushed a bit more sent their kids there. But I'm not Catholic and was a bit leary of a clearly religious institution.

It was then I heard that outside of Avignon there was a Rudolf Steiner school. My mother’s first boy friend had been in the Manhattan Steiner school during the War. My cousins had put their kids through a Steiner school in Chicago. A dear friend was a devoted anthroposophist. Hm. It sounded interesting.

So Erick and I took Leo to an interview at the school. We were received by two of the kindergarten teachers who actually wanted to know who Leo was, where he came from, what might have influenced his growth to this point, was he a desired child? When and how did he learn to walk and talk? Had there been any major events in his life to this point that might have shaped him?

After the cold and neutral reception of the public education system, I was in heaven. The rooms were warm, filled with toys of natural materials, and so many objects to be used to build, design, construct: wood blocks of every shape, silk scarves of many colors, a kitchen area, a play house area… There was warmth and thought behind every gesture. Pregnant with my second child, I felt at ease confiding my son to this school. And to top it off, the teachers waived away any worries I had about raising my children bi-lingual. It will improve his singing ear, they said. And not to worry about the stuttering. It will pass as he finds his way. We will speak in clear and good French, and he will gradually imprint the language of his birth-land. Reading and writing will come when he is older. We don’t force it early upon a child before he is ready to develop these intellectual gifts.

And so began a major shift in my life. Suddenly, a daily commute of an hour each way was part of our existence. It was something to ask of the au pairs, and something imposed upon our child. Late night meetings to learn about the educational methods used by the school, weekend parties to help clean and garden or paint walls.

The community of the school was tight-knit and varied. There were the French-German boys whose mother was an airline hostess for Lufthansa. and the Belgian-French girl who spoke Flemish with her mother. The French woman who’d lived in Australia for 15 years and whose children were fully bi-lingual. And as the years passed, the English families who came to settle in Provence, the American families who came to spend a year abroad, the Japanese-French family who put their children in the school. For Leo it became a ritual to sit beside the new English speaker in his class to help her or him adapt to the French swirling around them.

The Rudolf Steiner school is an international phenomenon. The major elements of the program are the same throughout the world, and the school welcomes exchanges and the movement of its pupils. In Southern Europe, the Avignon school represents the only school that goes all the way to high school, in a Southern climate. Thus though the school is state subsidized in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Germany, and is costly in France, many Northerners come and settle near the school to benefit from the better climate. The Avignon school has become a hub of over a dozen different cultures and languages. My bi-lingual children are simply normal. In Leo’s class alone there are children from Germany, Slovakia, Italy, Spain, Scotland, England and Brazil. And, here, I am almost normal. A bit enthusiastic, energetic, frantic at times and a swirl of emotions, but, my Anglo-Saxon heritage is accepted here as it often wasn’t elsewhere.

Leo, followed by Jonas, are enrolled in the Rudolf Steiner school. There, they are raised on the universal stories of the Brothers Grimm, the fables of the crow and the fox, Greek myths and more. With this school, perhaps more than by any other means, I am able to raise my children in an international context. Born in a small town in the South of France, they nevertheless have the horizons of the world open to them.


Zuleme said...

I played piano a bit for a friend who used to run the Waldorf school here. I would have loved a school like that and my mother says if she knew then what she knows now, she would have put me in one.
I think it's a good choice.

Madeleine Vedel said...

I too wish I might have gone to such a school! humanist that I am. I adore singing, playing an instrument, dancing, drawing, painting... My parents provided quite a bit at home and outside my public school. I'm lucky my kids get this in school.

Airelle said...

oh Madeleine, you're so lucky to have a steiner school near by. I have always had problems with my daughter who is terribly artistic and not at all scholarly. so she hated the french school and did very badly. i tried a french-english school (horribly expensive, of course because totally private) and she did have a good command of english (at least compared with the french kids, less so if you compare her with our native finnish children) but not a great success in scholarly way. then a year in a catholic school, not much better. so, since she hadn't got the notes to enter an artistic lycée (yes, you need to be excellent in french and mathematics to be allowed to draw!!!) she freaked out and went back to Finland at 17. there she has found a little more comprehensive school system though it is still not totally adapted.
the love the french have for a good scholarly record does in my mind destroy a lot of potential, after all it is not the people that follow the rules who make things evolve but those who are inventive and independent minded!
and what comes to speaking your mother tongue, EVERYBODY KNOWS, except the french school mistresses, that a mother should talk her mother tongue since that is the language she commands the best. school and environment will teach the country's language. otherwise you just build half languaged children.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Airelle, it is hard raising bi-lingual kids anywhere I suppose. It poses challenges for the teachers, that many are just not willing to accept. And, spelling is a permanent nightmare. But, with the movement of peoples that this world has, we need to adjust and adapt as best we can. How could we not encourage our children to have a command of the languages we were raised in? Good luck for your daughter! the Northern countries have a reputation for being far more open-minded than France in their education.

Tirill said...

Thank you so much for writing this! I’m a Norwegian girl doing a waldorf teaching degree here in Oslo, and dream of settling in Avinon after graduation. I just have to work on my french skills a bit more. Good to know that there is such a variation in nationalities, that makes it alot easier for me as a teacher as well. I’ll get in touch with them to see if there might be any vacancys coming up. :)

Ken Wallace said...

I would love to speak with you about the Steiner School. We are an American family planning a move to the area near Carpentras, and our children currently attend a Steiner school in California. Neither speak French and we are very concerned about softening the transition as they are both older children (11 and 15).

Patti said...

I'm an American living in the Netherlands married to a Dutch man. We have 3 girls ages 13, 11, and 8. We plan to move to the South of France and I was wondering if I could contact you to ask you some questions about schools and life in France.